Interface: Designing the Perfect UI from Scratch

I’ve been looking more and more at screenshots of user interfaces recently.  There’s a ton of reasons for that.  First off, I realized in my devious plan to turn to the dark side….that I need a completely different set up to dps than I do to heal.  So I’ve been taking a look at a few new addon options and set ups.  It’s a great excuse to fine tune my healing UI as well.  I like doing that every few months just to make sure it’s serving me as well as it can.  Second, our guild has been recruiting, and one of our application questions requests a UI screenshot.  Hint to applicants: you have no idea how much this tells a guild about your play.  Finally, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts flying around the blogosphere with all sorts of technical details for setting things up…but not a lot of posts devoted to where to start  So I thought I’d start a weekly series on setting up a raiding healer UI from scratch.

I think most people start in the wrong place.  They have one thing that they can’t see or that isn’t working or maybe a friend recommends a particular addon.  They download it and try it out and keep it.  Rinse and repeat.  The problem with a patchwork approach to UI design is that you end up with pieces that get shoved into odd places and don’t fit together as a unified whole – not to mention ending up with a bunch of extra addons that you probably don’t really need.

But I Don’t Really Need any Mods…

I am distressed that anyone would even attempt to heal a raid with the default UI.  I’ve had to fake it a couple times when I disconnected and came back in completely lacking my raid frames; I tell you it was miserable.  Admittedly, I simply wasn’t prepared for it, and trying to figure out where spells were on my bars, while realizing I don’t have a keybind for showing friendly nameplates, while frantically dragging the default frames onto my screen, while keeping people alive, was never going to be efficient or seamless.  (Though it was a bit funny after the fact.)  Even if I was prepared though, targeting someone and then healing them is the least efficient way of directing a heal (it’s two clicks instead of just one).  Every fraction of a second helps in a raid.   The default UI is also woefully lacking in several pieces of critical information for healers.

Identifying Information You Need to Know

The first step to building your perfect user interface is to figure out what you need it to show you.  The key here is need to know, not is cool to have on your screen.  Also, try not to start this process by listing all the addons you think you can’t live without.  Instead, think about what basic information you need to know to effectively do your job.  Lets start with the bare minimum for healing:

  • Health bars for all raid members
  • Encounter specific buffs and debuffs including dispellable effects
  • Which abilities you have ready for use or on cooldown
  • What the boss is doing and where his (or her) health is
  • Cast bar including an adjustment for your latency

I cannot imagine someone someone effectively healing without these things, so that’s where we’re going to start.  In fact a number of these things can get taken care of with a single addon.  Or  you can take pieces from several.  It doesn’t matter as long as we stick to our goal – find a simple, effective method for conveying this information when and where we need it.  Everything else is bonus.

Extraneous Information is Distracting

The more things you have on your screen the more distractions exist.  It gets cluttered up.  One of the most obvious mistakes when building a UI is to keep adding information and addons until you can barely see the world around you.  I imagine it makes the game less pretty, but it also makes it harder to avoid standing in fire.  Keep it as clean as you possibly can.  I think if you force yourself to start from scratch with the basics (or at least pare things down) you’ll breathe a sigh of relief and clarity when you can finally see the amazing graphics Blizzard designed for us.  There are a number of addons I thought where so cool, I gave them a shot…and realized a month or two later I wasn’t really glancing at the information they gave me, or that I only needed them for one class/spec.  All things considered, it’s better to keep things simple and relevant, or at least out of the way.  I strongly encourage you to try a UI with just the bare basics, and then figure out what you really miss being able to see.

Look at Example UIs

The single most helpful thing I did to fix my UI was look at a thread with thirty screenshots of healer UIs.  This is a great way to browse, see what is popular, and learn about a range of addons.  Glancing at them all in sequence, it was beyond obvious what was appealing to me and what wasn’t – and it was nothing like how I had things set up.  The WoW UI Gallery has some great examples.  Taking ten minutes to “brainstorm” layouts and functionality before solidifying your ideas can be a huge breakthrough to finding the perfect setup.

Design Your Ideal Layout

I think this part is the most fun.  The guiding principle here is: put things you need most in the center, and things you need sometimes around the edges.  Keep everything you need to see update quickly nearby…so you aren’t trying to pick it up in the periphery of your vision.  Keep things you need to click on or hover over (versus things you just need to look at) closer together as well, so that you don’t waste mouse travel time.  This seems like it should be intuitive, but it really isn’t.  Mentally erase all of the elements of your UI and…. wait, just log on and press Alt+Z.  There, that’s better.  Set your camera zoom out as far as it would be in a raid.  Imagine where the boss is standing, where your compatriots in battle are, where the Maleable Goo gets thrown at you, the fire that blooms under your feet.  You need to see these things, so make sure to keep these areas clear.

Next, start placing things in in order of importance and frequency of use.  You need to let go of where you are used to seeing something, and where it is now, and focus on where it could be.  Raid frames are the most important thing for you to place.  I’m a firm believer that raid frames for healers should be large and centered in the lower portion of my screen.  Others like them smaller than I do, or placed slightly off to one side and a bit higher vertically.  Figure out what works best for you.

Draw it out on a piece of paper.  (I hear pencils and assorted processed tree products still exist in the real world.)


Future posts will talk in detail about installing addons as well as choosing between raid frames, unit frames, cast bars, cooldown timers, boss encounter mods, meters, and everything else I can think of.

P.S.  If you have an addon you adore and would like to recommend, please do leave me a comment.


~ by ecclesiasticaldiscipline on June 23, 2010.

7 Responses to “Interface: Designing the Perfect UI from Scratch”

  1. I know someone who plays every class at 80 with excellent performance. When asked about his UI, he informed me that he uses Grid and Power Auras, everything else is just frills. Something to think about, especially when starting from scratch, or aiming for a minimalist interface.

    • Grid and Power Auras are both amazingly powerful and flexible tools; they are ideal for people who play a variety of characters. I have every intention of talking about both of these in future posts, and (while I have my own ideas) would love to hear more suggestions from readers.

  2. Psst! I use the base UI and have done so for all of ICC. ;D It’s not nearly as bad as people think. You can make macros for mouseover healing and you get used to noting where the debuffs are on the basic raid frames. Dare I say I’m just as good a healer, if not better, than I was when I had a fancy UI set-up!

    • I hope I didn’t sound like I was insulting the few good healers that seem to “make do” with the default UI…but it makes no sense to me and I don’t think it ever will. I don’t think the vast majority of healers can heal well with those tools available and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It certainly makes at least a little more sense for a Paladin who (with a focus on tank healing and Beacon) could be shifting targets less than any other healer.

      But unless you have an Uber computer and connection Bil Gates would envy, I don’t know how you’d efficiently time your Flashes and Holy Lights without a cast bar showing latency. I just don’t see any way of getting around that without an addon.

      • First time posting a comment on here, have mercy ;)

        Until recently, I’ve never used an addon that showed me cast bars with latency. It worked just fine, by timing the global cooldown on each keypress. I never looked at my cast bars until I switched UI. I think it’s fancy to have, nice to have even, but absolutely not necessary. I never notice my cast bars anyway.

        • I at least try to be friendly to guests, and you’ll have to ask nicely if you’d like to be bitten…

          Maybe it’s just me…I can internally time things on a 6-8 second cooldown like Prayer of Mending or Penance…but “how long my Greater Heal takes” is weird. Now part of that is that Renewed Hope messes that all up and makes it cast differently often. And part of that is that connection lag can shift it from cast to cast. But I just don’t feel like *I* can effectively cast spells back to back without a latency meter. Might this also be because I’m talking about casting things *not* equal to the GCD? That would make it worse.

  3. […] Ecclesiastical Discipline talks about designing a UI from scratch. […]

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